(instrumental music) - [Interviewer] So much of modern music is dominated by urban performers that it can be easy to forget that lots of black musicians have celebrated rural America and their own country roots.
We're in Wilkes County, North Carolina to meet Jontavious Willis a young guitar player and singer from Georgia whose music is based in the deep roots of Country Blues.
(soft guitar music) "The World Is in A Tangle" ♪ Well, the world's in a tangle, it's time to make a change ♪ ♪ I'm gonna move away and change my name ♪ ♪ I said the world's in a tangle what's going on ♪ ♪ Going to a foreign land and make it my home ♪ ♪ You can be having a good day as jolly as you can be ♪ ♪ I bet you'll get the blues when you turn on the TV ♪ ♪ 'Cause the worlds in a tangle what's going on ♪ ♪ Going to a foreign land and make it my home ♪ ♪ Ain't got no money ♪ ♪ Ain't nothing to buy ♪ ♪ Some promise us peace while we're living ♪ ♪ But we gotta get it when we die ♪ ♪ Because the world's in a tangle what's on ♪ ♪ I'm going to a foreign land make it my home ♪ - Where're you going , man.
- I don't know but, but ain't going somewhere.
(lighthearted guitar music) ♪ Yeah ♪ (Instrumental music) (both laughing) - You just graduated from college, congratulations.
- Thank you, thank you.
- [Interviewer] What'd you study?
- I studied sociology.
- Wow, and how did you get into music?
How did this come about?
Were you in the musical family?
- No way, I had a lot of folk that they sang but they didn't necessarily play instrument.
I got a cousin that played keys but most the folks were singers and did their own thing.
I started playing music I was out in the country.
So, I started when I was 14 and kinda kept with the guitar, I started on piano didn't do as well as I thought I did, not as well as I did with the guitar and then did trombone but guitar, banjo and harmonica, were only thing that stuck with me.
- well, that's a lot.
(Willis laughs) Was this playing in church?
- No, I started playing guitar at home mostly then when I think I got, okay to play in church and I started playing probably a year, so yeah.
- Was that where you got the strong voice singing in church?
- Oh yeah, I always tried to pattern myself after my grandfather, just this to me, was just this, like, John Henry character.
Like, 6'3...6'4 slender dude.
I didn't get that, but I did get that voice.
(laughing) - That's great.
What got you into the blues at 14?
Was it the Muddy Waters?
- [Willis] The Muddy - [Interviewer] YouTube.
- Yeah the Muddy Waters they were definitely one of-- lemme talk about that clip for a bit.
He was singing in front of a black crowd and that be like the 70s.
'Cause there was like to of the later part of his career and that was rare for him to have a black crowd out then.
- And man, they were talking to him you know, kind of, bantering with him.
And like he was feeding off of the energy, like a smaller club and kind of reminded me a church because every time he would say something they would say something they were talking back and he would getting into it and he would start playing the slide, you know, hard and I was like, man if I can get just a fraction of it and then that was-- Along with my cousin and my god sister were talking in the front room about they wanted a man that was a musician and my cousin said, "I want a man that play piano."
And I'm like I tried that, that was, you know didn't work.
(laughing) I'll try again someday hopefully but the guitar player, I was like, yeah, you know I might try that.
So those two things combined, I think was really what ignited me actually practicing, I had been listening to it for a while like two years and I started listening to when I was 12.
But those two things for sure, got me.
- Yeah, youtube really changed stuff around.
When I was young, you either had to go see the people or listen to an old record if they had passed away.
- [Willis] Oh yeah, for sure.
- It's a big jump from realizing you like music and can do music to becoming a professional musician.
And you're only 25.
How did that progress?
- I did a festival called Ethos Eutaw, Alabama, shout out to my folks in Eutaw, Alabama it's E U T A W. They would do this thing called a Black Belt Blues Festival.
And I told 'em I wanted to play and they were like, you know, we can't pay you just exposure.
So, I went there then when I played at first time I got paid, they did pay me.
And that's how it started, 2012 I met at Taj Mahal, - Yeah, how did that come about?
- Taj was playing a show in Atlanta and I had just put a video of Lucy Mae Blues and Taj had seen it and he liked the song and you know it's an older tune from the 50s and he liked the way I was playing it.
And he was like, "I'm waiting for you, I have been waiting for you, Willis have been waiting for you."
- And I was like, "I appreciate it."
So he told me he was coming to Atlanta.
He called me up on stage at the Pete Month party for two songs, the rest is history.
All the folks there in Georgia, they started talking to me and yeah, he helped me out a lot yeah.
- And then Keb' Mo' got into it too - Well, so I met Taj first and then Taj and Keb' did the TajMo' two later on.
And so I opened a few shows for them all throughout the US and then I spent a lot of time with Keb' on that tour and that's how me and Keb' got together and then we ended up doing a record a little bit after that, but yeah, I met him through Taj.
- It's a good record too, yeah.
- Yeah, I appreciate it, thank you.
- And what did you learn?
What would a person learn from somebody like Taj Mahal?
Did you learn about the music or the biz or?
- I learned a lot of things from Taj, I got a lot of the cultural stuff, 'cause Taj was hanging out with all of those guys, like you know, Mississippi John Hurt, Fred McDowell all of the guys you name, he was hanging out And also he one of those, like he wanted the guy now?
And so I talked to him about the music and the culture and tradition, and I talked to Keb' about this, about some of that too.
- So he's got a great way of relating to the audience and so do you, - I appreciate it, yeah.
- So you like to entertain?
- I love to entertain.
Like I said, that's one of the things I got from church and just some of the characters in my family like entertaining and making people feel at home, I feel like acoustic music is one of the great things about Solo Acoustic music, just you and whatever your instrument is and the folks so you have to kind of make 'em feel welcome you know I'm happy up on stage, I want 'em to be happy looking at me.
- Well, it works, man.
It really comes through.
And you know a lot of people just present it as ancient piece of music or something, but you don't.
(soft guitar music) "The Blues is Dead" ♪ You know people been talkin', ♪ ♪ and it made me scratch my head ♪ ♪ People been talkin', and it made me scratch my head ♪ ♪ They been sayin' over and over, that the blues is dead ♪ ♪ The blues ain't goin' no where, ♪ ♪ be here for a great long time ♪ ♪ The blue ain't goin' no where, ♪ ♪ been here for a great long time ♪ ♪ Long as folks have problem and situations only mine ♪ [Instrumental] ♪ I said so stop with that foolish talk, ♪ ♪ it ain't nothin' but some myth ♪ ♪ Stop with that foolish talk, ♪ ♪ it ain't nothin' but some myth ♪ ♪ You know the blues ain't dead, ♪ ♪ he just been takin' his rest ♪ ♪ Wake up mister blue!
♪ (lighthearted guitar music) - You wrote the song "The Blues is Dead".
Where'd that come from?
And what were you thinking?
- Man, you know you always hear the slogan, "Keeping the Blues Alive" or you hear different people say it but even before people made it a slogan, like we said earlier, I got a lot of friends that playing it.
I'm around folks that talk about it all the time and I know for a fact, you know it ain't dead nor dying.
Like I said, it might not be like it was in 20 and 30 but that what made me write the song like, yeah it can't be dead.
They got 20, they got 23, they got 24 - [Interviewer] I know - So, it can't be dead, but they just have to look in those places.
So the reason I said "The Blues ain't Dead" It just been taking its rest.
So now it's waking up, from out of its sleep you know, you can't come back from dead, but from sleep you can wake up out of it.
- That's a great line too.
And I just wanted for people to realize how hard it is to write The blue song.
'Cause it's so simple, you just have a few lines to do it and you gotta get it all said in those few lines.
- [Interviewer] Good for you.
- Man, I appreciate it.
Yeah, I try to draw inspiration from a lot of the older folks.
There's something Keb' also help me with as he emphasize songwriting.
- [Interviewer] Well, you've written a lot of the songs.
- Yeah, yeah I like writing at least all the stuff that I record I I've written it, but when I perform, I like performing some of the older stuff too, but I feel like it's all living and when I see some of the clips from the older guys or when I hear some of the songs and hear the foot pattern, then I just sit still and just, you know being still they into it because you feel the song, you feel the lyrics and you want the people that listening to feel it too.
So that's how I approach it.
- Let's think about some of the people young person's watching this right now and says, "I like that what he's doing, where can I go to learn some of that stuff?"
- Lemme do my Georgia folks first, Blind Willie McTell were born in Georgia or from Georgia Blind Willie McTell, Big Maceo Merriweather, Thomas Dorsey, Barbecue Bob, Kokomo Arnold, Tampa Red Yeah, got it Tampa Red!
Ma Rainey, Buddy Moss, Curley Weaver.
- These are all just Atlanta.
- They're all 'em Georgia, y'all them Georgia.
But then, once you go listen to them, and they can just go find out people just like they're recording on the same label.
If you like one of 'em you can find some people that like them.
That's kinda how I did, and dived into that direction.
- I'm really excited to see that there's a lot you were telling me there's a lot of young black folks who are interested in the Blues.
- And they're good.
- Oh, they're good, that's good thing about it.
Yeah, they're good.
Yeah, I know about 25, 30 young black guy with 35 and under that play some professionally and some-- - That's great.
- Yeah, yeah and they're good and they're just growing everyday So I think what really help is social media and being able to connect with one another, 'cause you see that people out doing it's a little group of folks and other people see those videos and it get them excited and yeah, man, it's fun.
I'm glad to be in the mix.
- I'm glad to see it, you know.
Are there young black women playing The Blues too?
- Yeah, there are.
I know you know my friend, Amythyst Kiah - Oh, yeah she's been on the show.
- Yeah, she's amazing.
But I got a friend named Brier, she's out on the West Coast.
She's a great vocalist.
She's does well, there's a few other folks that I know they don't do just strictly Blues, but I think if we were back in the time of recording, they would definitely record these with some great vocals.
And also I think the church has a lot of musicians in it that don't know that they're Blue singers yet, you know.
- [Interviewer] Oh, that's right.
- [ Willis] But yeah, but I might be the converter you know (laughing) but yeah, it's a few out there for sure but not too many professional.
- [Interviewer] Well, it's a hard road to- - [Willis] Yeah, it is.
- I mean, it's really hard.
- Yeah, for sure, for sure.
- How's it going for you?
'Cause you've decided to be out on the road and be a professional musician.
- It's going well for me so far, it's been good 'cause I try to like, not only do the music but I like the history and I like talking to the elders.
I like talking to folk that was connected to the past, I like-- - [Interviewer÷} You're a man after my own heart.
(laughing) - I appreciate it, thank you man.
- That's the way I was, at that age.
- Yeah, that's it man, I love it.
(soft guitar music) "Take Me to the Country" ♪ I been all around the world ♪ ♪ bought everything from diamonds to gold ♪ ♪ No matter where I go or what I buy ♪ ♪ I'm still a country boy deep down in my soul ♪ ♪ So take me to the country nothing but skies and pines ♪ ♪ Oh follow me to the country where we can have ♪ ♪ a real good time ♪ ♪ Well, the folks in the country ♪ ♪ They don't live soo fast ♪ ♪ got good mannerism and spectacular class ♪ ♪ Take me to the country nothing but skies and pines ♪ ♪ Oh now follow me to the country where we can have ♪ ♪ a real good time ♪ ♪ Now I know you hear the wind when it calls your name ♪ ♪ Wake up out your sleep hearing that southbound train ♪ ♪ Say, nothing but skies and pine ♪ ♪ Oh now follow me to the country where we can have ♪ ♪ a real good time ♪ ♪ Take the clouds as your pillow the grass as your bed ♪ ♪ I know you smell the sweet aroma ♪ ♪ of that hot water corn bread ♪ ♪ Take me to the country nothing but skies and pines ♪ ♪ Oh follow me to the country where we can have ♪ ♪ a real good time ♪ ♪ Oh, let's go ♪ (soft guitar music) - Tell us about that one.
- Oh man, well that song just about where I'm from out in Greenville, Georgia small town less than a thousand people.
Man, I just tried, like pull everything from home.
So my cousin got like 30 cows right in front of our house.
Like, well I guess it's a street and then it's the pasture.
So you go outside and just pasture it's pines it's blue skies, cows.
- [Interviewer] Where do you think you'll be in 10 years from now?
- I don't know where I'll be, but I hope it's a place where there's more black folk playing blues.
It ain't got to be like it was in 20s and 30s I don't expect it to be like it was in 20 and 30s.
- 'Cause it's a pile of genre of music but I hope it'll be more black folk playing I hope it'll be more festivals ran by folks that look like me, you know and more practitioners on the bills 'cause you know, right now it's not.
I'm like the older black person that's on a lot of these festivals.
I know, you know, and I would hope as far in my career, I don't know how to go, 'cause I listen to one thing today and then tomorrow it's still Blues now 'cause ever since I started, you know, I just can't leave it.
I've been, what it is going on.
I don't know how many years now, but yeah, I can't leave it but I hope that in 10 years we'll have something that we can sit back and enjoy picking and playing and grinning.
- Is there a lot of pressure on getting it electrified and playing with a bigger sound, with drums and everything?
- Well, I feel like a lot of people have become accustomed to that after the British invasion.
I think it's still the market for the rediscovery crowd the more coffee house and intimate thing.
But I think people mostly tend to like the Rock Blues because you know that stuff kind of like, you know 50 years old too now, a lot, you know - It's old time.
- Yeah, yeah, so in retrospect the stuff that I play is a lot older.
And so sometimes it's harder for people to relate to it, opposed to the band stuff I like the band stuff, but I like the most 40s and 50s stuff some of the 60 stuff, but my love is really from the 20s onto the 50s.
- [Interviewer] Yeah.
- [Willis] That's really what I love.
- Yeah, me too.
- Good stuff.
(laughing) - We're doing a great job with it, man.
- I appreciate it.
- I appreciate you, man.
- Thanks for being out there.
"See See Rider" ♪ See see rider, see what you have done, Lord, Lord ♪ ♪ See see rider, see what you have done ♪ ♪ See see rider, see what you have done ♪ ♪ You have made me love you, now your man has come ♪ ♪ My home's on the water ♪ ♪ I don't like no land at all ♪ ♪ Said my homes on the water, ♪ ♪ I don't like no land at all ♪ ♪ Said my homes on the water ♪ ♪ I don't like no land at all ♪ ♪ I'm gonna catch it all, midnight Cannonball ♪ ♪ Well the train I ride, It is 16 coaches long ♪ ♪ Well, the train ride, it is 16 coaches long ♪ ♪ Said, the train I ride in, 16 coaches long ♪ ♪ Said that I'll carry my baby, now it is gone ♪ ♪ Now the long train that I ever seen ♪ ♪ Said the longest get train that I ever seen ♪ ♪ Said the longest train, that I ever seen ♪ ♪ It's face was in Maine, It's tail was in new Orleans.
♪ ♪ I'm going no way, mama ♪ ♪ I won't be back to your fall, Lord, Lord, Lord.
♪ ♪ I'm going away, mama nah ♪ ♪ won't be back to your fall ♪ ♪ I'm going away now, maybe I won't be back to your fall ♪ ♪ If I find my good girl, I won't be back at all.
♪ (lighthearted guitar music)